The Power by Naomi Alderman: a review by Nick Hubble

The Power by Naomi Alderman: a review by Nick Hubble

By Nick Hubble

The Power — Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking)

In a recent article for the Guardian, ‘How to build a feminist utopia’, Naomi Alderman briefly sets out some pragmatic measures for helping pave the way to a world in which genitals, hormones and gender identification don’t matter because ‘everyone gets to be both vulnerable and tough, aggressive and nurturing, effortlessly confident and inclusively consensus-building, compassionate and dominant’. Among suggestions such as trying to establish equal parenting as the norm and teaching boys to be able to express their emotions, she also proposes teaching every girl self-defence at school from the age of five to sixteen. In effect, this is what happens in The Power when it becomes apparent that a generation of teenage girls across the world have developed the capacity to emit electric shocks. The only difference is that this doesn’t just allow the girls to defend themselves against male violence but instead enables them to become the aggressors.

Through an episodic narrative focusing on a small number of protagonists, who are eventually drawn together, we witness global society fall apart over a period of ten years. In telling this story, Alderman depicts some violence inflicted by men on women but much of the raw power of The Power lies in a series of short, violent scenes that include the maiming, murder, sexual assault and rape of men, unable to defend themselves against transformed women. Therefore, The Power is, in part, a role-reversal story. Indeed, Justine Jordan’s review of the novel for the Guardian is subtitled ‘if girls ruled the world’. The danger of this approach is that not only does it make the premise sound like a gimmick but it also trivialises the radical impact of the novel by implying that Alderman has produced nothing more than a didactic ‘what if’ story. However, the elaborate framing of the novel generates a range of more complex and troubling meanings.

The Power begins and closes with an exchange of letters between characters called Naomi Alderman and Neil Adam Armon. The second name is an anagram of the first and the exchange is amusing because traditional gender traits are reversed. The body of the main text is presented between these exchanges as The Power: A historical novel by Neil Adam Armon. This allows Alderman to have fun by representing the character bearing her name to tease her subordinate male counterpart with regards to the ‘fetish’ elements of his story: ‘gangs of women locking up women for sex … some of us have had fantasies like that!’ On one level, this is just crass and functions to satirise similar real-life behaviour by men. On a second level, the realisation that this response is completely inadequate to the violence portrayed in the text leaves an uncanny aftertaste in the reader. The effect is similar to that of Swiftian satire in that it goes beyond expressing disgust with specific aspects of male behaviour (via the reverse parody) to evincing dissatisfaction with the human race as a whole. Why are any of us – whatever gender – complicit with the sexualisation of violent behaviour?

But there is also a deeper, temporal, level to this framing of the narrative. The exchange between Alderman and Armon appears at first to be in a version – albeit one with a Men Writers Association – of our contemporary time. As soon as we start reading Armon’s historical novel, however, we realise that this is set in something much more like our contemporary society. We are told at first that there are ‘ten years to go’ but as we read on we encounter images of artefacts from ‘five hundred years ago’. The closer we get to whatever is about to happen – ‘nine years to go’, ‘five years to go’, ‘one year’, ‘can’t be more than seven months left’ – the further in the past the artefacts are dated – one thousand, two thousand five hundred, five thousand years ago. The net effect of this is a retemporalisation of the gender-flipped contemporary setting. Alderman and Armon’s epistolary exchange is not just happening in any parallel universe but in one with five thousand years of history in which women have been the unequivocally dominant gender. The implication is that it is not just the differing biological capacities of the genders that underwrites inequality but also the long socialisation of history. Although, without that socialisation, people will simply abuse power more directly because they can.

In this respect, the novel might be seen as rather depressing. Like the dystopian works of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood, who has been mentoring Alderman, The Power seems to reveal an inherent and seemingly inescapable flaw in the human condition. While some will find this aspect of the novel frustrating, others will experience it as enigmatic. Is there some way out of this apparent constraint preventing fully liberated human relations? The intricacy of the structure and the interlocking levels of the plot are likely to ensure that The Power will generate debate and pleasure for years to come. Already, the novel has been longlisted for both the Baileys and Orwell Prizes and it must be considered a very strong candidate for inclusion on the Clarke shortlist.

Nevertheless, I don’t think The Power should just be seen as a fine example of the Orwellian type of dystopian novel. Inside all the framing, there remains a set of recognisable genre stories – chiefly those of Roxy and her gangster father, and of the runaway, Allie. In a manner that is reminiscent of the work of Atwood, these stories don’t quite work out the way we might anticipate. Ultimately, Roxy doesn’t allow her life to be determined by her father nor does she end up taking his place, while Allie manages to make herself independent even of God. To put it another way, these characters escape from the stories writing them and it is in this manner that Alderman implies that we can maybe after all build a feminist utopia by escaping from the structures of hierarchy that underwrite cycles of violence.

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Nick Hubble is an academic working in the English department at Brunel University London, where they teach modern and contemporary literature, including Science Fiction and Fantasy. In addition, they have reviewed SFF for journals including Strange HorizonsLos Angeles Review of BooksFoundation and Vector.

>> Read Nick’s introduction and shortlist.

5 Comments

  1. Martin 7 months ago

    The effect is similar to that of Swiftian satire in that it goes beyond expressing disgust with specific aspects of male behaviour (via the reverse parody) to evincing dissatisfaction with the human race as a whole.

    I found the book hugely disappointing for this reason: crude reverse parody ultimately leading to fatalism. And I could definitely have done with the lulzy framing device. The Atwood debt is obvious but who looks at The Handmaid’s Tale and thinks the framing device is the bit to copy? The rest of the book is the same hot mess as Atwood’s later science fiction but without the benefit of actually being written by Atwood. Instead it sticks most comfortably in the thriller mode and strains plausibility throughout. Roxie the super-powerful daughter of the ethical crime family (“Not in flesh, that’s a dirty trade.”) was particularly hard to swallow though she was the most engaging character. As Gareth Beniston says in his review: “If you can explain the problems in the text as Neil’s problems and misunderstandings, then you might appreciate the novel more than me. But I don’t think you can.”

    But worse then that is the failure of imagination – everything is just gender flipped. The female rapist saying “he bloody loved it”, the senator leering – completely out of character – at attractive young reporters, the insane dictator saying “‘Just like a man,’ she says. ‘Does not know how to be silent, thinks we always want to hear what he has to say, always talking talking talking, interrupting his betters.’” Bad enough on its own but no consideration is given the wider implications. So we have a scene in which the gender dynamic of US daytime news is reversed.

    “Matt laughs and says, I couldn’t even have watched! He’s very attractive, a good ten years younger than Kristen. The network had found him. Just trying something out. While we’re at it, Kristen, why don’t you wear your glasses onscreen now, it’ll give you gravitas.” But where has the embedded patriarchy of the TV industry and America more generally gone? Nowhere, this scene just exists in isolation as an authorial prod of satire. (Notably revolution is something that only happens outside of the West in the book.)

    So I’m not sure how you can write: “these characters escape from the stories writing them and it is in this manner that Alderman implies that we can maybe after all build a feminist utopia by escaping from the structures of hierarchy that underwrite cycles of violence.”

    The Power seems the total opposite of the feminist utopian SF tradition to me. It says not only that women can be as bad as men but they inevitably will be in exactly the same ways. Or worse. Alderman ends up in a situation where she blames a women for the fact Allie’s stepfather repeatedly rapes her and has women deliberately causing the apocalypse. It is a book that says there is no alternative to oppression and subjugation. That is more than “dissatisfaction with the human race”!

    At the end we learn the framing device takes place 5,000 years in the future after that apocalypse in a society which is, ridiculously, an exact mirror image of our current society. Obviously it is not intended seriously – after all, the agent is called “Naomi Alderman” – but it sits very uneasily with the rest of the book and a writer who cares enough about the biology of the Power to actually research it. Compare and contrast with The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin where life is tough and there are no utopian solutions but where multiple genuine alternative models of society in response to crisis are presented.

  2. Nick Hubble 7 months ago

    The book doesn’t say there is no alternative to oppression and subjugation nor that women are inevitably as bad as men. It is not advocating for the circumstances it describes! It does suggest that women might behave the same way as men do and have done around the globe if they suddenly had an overwhelming power advantage. However, while this aspect is key to the novel’s satirical intent, it isn’t the core point which is that we have to find a different basis for organising society. Such a basis would include some of the practical steps described in the first paragraph of the review. More importantly though, the novel implies that we need to move away from structuring society around the gender binary. In Alderman’s article about feminist science fiction in last Saturday’s Guardian, she moves from talking about feminist SF to talking about gender questioning SF, with the implication that it is the tradition of the former – Le Guin, Russ, Piercy, Atwood etc – that gives us the resources to achieve the latter. I think both that she is correct in that and that The Power is a significant step in that direction (although there have been other earlier novels that have also made this kind of move such as Tricia Sullivan’s Maul). As I said, the novel is going to frustrate and irritate many but I think we will be talking about it for a long time to come. Indeed, I’m already making notes towards a second review, which may well be necessitated by this shadow Clarke process (and I will also be reviewing The Fifth Season in due course).

    • Martin 7 months ago

      I don’t think it is advocating for the circumstances it describes but nor does it present an alternative, despite creating to separate counter-factual societies. This suggests that a) the patriarchy is inevitable in this world and b) a similar oppressive structure is inevitable in any world.

      I do think the satirical and speculative ‘what ifs’ collide unhelpfully. “What if the social roles and behaviours of men and women were swapped?” is not a very interesting question. Helpful for drawing attention to issues in our own society but that is a pretty low bar; there are many other approaches that you could take to achieve the same aim whilst being more artistically fruitful. “What if women suddenly developed a power that fundamentally changed the existing gender dynamic?” is an interesting question but not one the book explores robustly. The third, utopian ‘what if’ you refer to – ‘what if we attempted to create a better society?’ – isn’t tackled at all. The only evidence you’ve pointed to is that article rather than the text itself.

  3. Nick Hubble 7 months ago

    It doesn’t suggest that patriarchy is inevitable so much as that it will be difficult to overcome (as 2016 & 2017 are demonstrating). If, for example, the novel used its premise to indicate that a women-led society would be significantly different than a patriarchal one, then it could be seen as implying some sort of essential difference. I think the fact that it avoids essentialism is good and implies that we can eventually get rid of patriarchy (even though that may take 1000s of years – in this The Power is not making an entirely dissimilar point to that of Banks’s The State of the Art which suggests we have about another 10,000 years to go before attaining something like a Culture-level of civilisation). The implied arc of the novel’s argument is dialectical. The thesis and the antithesis effectively cancel each other out and so we need a synthesis, which by implication would be to move beyond the gender binary (in the novel, the eventual relationship between Roxy and Tunde is positioned something like this).

    I think the brio with which the satirical antithetical women-led society is constructed and represented is worthy of applause. It is an achievement. I don’t think it is that easy to set out and write that world. OK, the potential weakness of any satire is that it doesn’t represented a society as nuanced as the one we live in. But then, British and US politics in 2017 do not reflect nuanced societies. Written 10 years ago as satires, they wouldn’t seem credible (critics would dismiss them as ‘obvious’ in line with the way that certain left-wing authors – such as Banks – were ostentatiously yawned at). Unsophisticated shit happens. In this context, the virtue of The Power is that it recognises the stakes. If it simply tried to narrate a liberal alternative to patriarchy, then it would simply be a fantasy. Books like this deliberately irritate readers because they are trying to make them think.

    • Martin 7 months ago

      If, for example, the novel used its premise to indicate that a women-led society would be significantly different than a patriarchal one, then it could be seen as implying some sort of essential difference. I think the fact that it avoids essentialism is good

      Avoiding gender essentialism is clearly a good thing but I think it is a red herring here. The woman-led society doesn’t need to be be significantly different to the patriarchial one because women are genetically different to men (although that is actually the fundamental point of difference with our world); it could – it should – be different because a) at the macro-level, society has undergone a huge, disruptive revolutionary change and b) at the micro-level, every woman depicted has experienced society under the patriarchy and would be shaped by that experience.

      South Africa post-apartheid is not a utopia but nor is it a crude inversion of apartheid, it is a messy democracy with its own unique. And do we really think it would be gender essentialism to say that the victims of rape culture might not recreate it in exactly the same way with them as the aggressors if they had a chance? It’s not about a liberal alternative to patriachy, its about a genuine alternative; Alderman presents a post-revolutionary world that is far too familar and too unimaginative followed by a post-apocalyptic future that is actually pre-revolutionary. If we have “about another 10,000 years to go before attaining something like a Culture-level of civilisation” then Alderman has written a book suggesting that if women attained power they would set this back by 5,000 years.

      The thesis and the antithesis effectively cancel each other out and so we need a synthesis,

      If the process of the book is thesis > antithesis > synthesis with the later being implied by the eventual relationship between Roxy and Tunde, how do you account for the fact this emerging synthesis is literally blown-up and replaced by the another version of the antithesis? What do you think the framing devise contributes to the process of dialectic? Can a novel with such aspirations really end with a blunt punchline? (“Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name?”) So say the satire is constructed with brio but is that enough if it actively undermines what you identify as the central point of the novel?

      Books like this deliberately irritate readers because they are trying to make them think.

      This is the second time you’ve used this phrase with the implication the book irritates me because it is making me think rather than because I wish Alderman had worked through the contradictions in her thought experiment more fully.

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